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Struggling Hampshire College gets a big reprieve

The decision offers a vote of confidence after months of uncertainty for Hampshire alumni, faculty, and administrators.
The decision offers a vote of confidence after months of uncertainty for Hampshire alumni, faculty, and administrators.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

Hampshire College, the iconoclastic Western Massachusetts school, has pulled itself from the brink of closure after a chaotic year and kept its all-important accreditation.

The regional accreditation board Saturday announced that Hampshire had earned a reprieve and noted that the small private college is on the right track as it tries to strengthen its leadership and shore up its finances.

The New England Commission of Higher Education announced that at a hearing Friday, Hampshire showed it had made “substantial progress” since May.

The college avoided what would have probably been its death knell — having its accreditation pulled or being placed on probation — the accreditor announced.

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“This lifts a cloud that has been over them,” said Larry Ladd, a Falmouth college consultant and former university administrator. “To practically everybody’s surprise, they are hanging in there. It’s quite a success story.”

The commission voted Friday to lift a warning notice on Hampshire’s governance practices; however, the accreditation group remained concerned about the college’s financial resources and will continue to closely monitor it.

The decision provides a vote of confidence after months of uncertainty for Hampshire alumni, faculty, and administrators who have been scrambling to save the college known for its progressive roots, where grades are eschewed and students create their own majors.

“We are very optimistic about what the future will bring,” said Edward Wingenbach, Hampshire’s president in a statement. This news will “further galvanize financial and other support from Hampshire’s alumni and friends.”

Wingenbach stepped in as president in August, after Hampshire’s previous leader, Miriam “Mim” Nelson, resigned in April, along with several members of the college’s board of trustees.

Nelson announced last January that the college was in dire financial condition and was looking for a merger partner or faced a shut-down. At that time, trustees voted not to admit a class in the fall.

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But students protested the changes, as did faculty and alumni. Nelson, who had lost the confidence of many on campus, eventually resigned.

The college decided to remain independent, and alumni galvanized around a fund-raising effort to save the school, which opened in 1970 as an experiment in higher education.

Hampshire graduate and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns spearheaded the effort to raise $20 million by 2020 and about $100 million in five years for the college. Since this past spring, $9.5 million in pledges and donations has been raised.

The college is also once again accepting applications for the next school year.

As part of the turnaround, Hampshire plans to double down on the type of education that long made it an appealing campus to free-thinkers. The college will abolish traditional academic departments and introduce team-taught seminars focused around a central, urgent question, Wingenbach announced in October. He said at the time the changes would attract more students.

Currently, 730 students are enrolled in Hampshire. The college’s financial plan calls for a return to full enrollment by the 2024-25 school year, with 1,100 students.

However, Hampshire expects that it will operate with a slimmed-down faculty and staff for the next few years. Hampshire currently has approximately 90 faculty and 200 staff on its payroll, significantly fewer than the 130 faculty and 300 staff that it employed last year.

Wingenbach said Hampshire presented plans to the accrediting agency that were “realistic” and “ensure continuing financial sustainability, while conveying that it will take time to realize the results we project in fundraising and enrollment.”

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Hampshire will have to submit its next report to the accrediting agency in December 2021.

Hampshire’s struggles with money and enrollment are far from unique in a higher education marketplace that is becoming increasingly competitive, especially for small institutions.

Many private colleges in New England are struggling to survive as the population of college-age students declines and competition to slash costs to appeal to more families heats up.

The pace of college closures and mergers has picked up in recent years.

Last year, Mount Ida College in Newton abruptly closed, leaving students, families, and staff in turmoil with few appealing options. Earlier this year, Newbury College in Brookline closed. In the past year, several Vermont institutions, including Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College, and the College of St. Joseph, have closed. And earlier this month, Vermont’s Marlboro College announced that it would become part of Emerson College in Boston, in an attempt to provide students and faculty a place to continue their education and work.

But it’s unclear whether other at-risk colleges can look to Hampshire for lessons in survival, said Ladd, who works with small private institutions.

Hampshire is a unique type of college with a strong alumni base. Few colleges can call on someone as famous and well-connected as Burns to lead the fund-raising effort, Ladd said.

Hampshire also benefits from being geographically and academically tied to other universities in Western Massachusetts, he said. If students can’t find the classes they want at Hampshire, they can take them somewhere nearby.

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“The will to survive is still very strong for colleges,” Ladd said. “If you have a strong identity, it’s a foundation, and fewer places have a stronger identity than Hampshire.”

Still, Hampshire will have to increase its enrollment and raise more money if it wants to remain viable for the longer term. It’s no easy task, but the accreditation decision will help, Ladd said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Globe correspondent Laurie Loisel contributed to this report.